Posted by: MC | February 11, 2011

Glimpses of the Rural/Urban Thing in the U.S.

Most Februaries I spend bemoaning rain, rain, rain, while walking around my everyday life in Portland, OR.  In February 2009, I was on the EX:Change road trip – cruising down the west coast and taking a left so that by Valentine’s Day, on the interstate from Tucson to Albuquerque, I was pushing 80 mph behind an 18-wheeler named for that very day (really…see EX:C blog photo, 2-18-2009, Cattle Trail).  Now it’s February 2011 and life has shifted gears again to bring me smack into the middle of winter in rural Wisconsin.

Here are some things that circumstance has taught me in the past few weeks.

  • Shovel snow with your knees bent and your biceps engaged – don’t rely on your wrists.
  • Prepare yourself for the physical geometry of subsequent snowfalls and the transfer of drifts onto proportionally higher piles.
  • It’s a lot of work and, no, you won’t work up any discernable sweat….
  • With regard to walking in sub-zero weather:  Wear long johns and so many other layers you give up counting.  Wrap your face with at least two scarves so only your eyes show.  There may be glare, but forget the sunglasses…they fog up.
  • Do make sure to steal occasional but consistently astonishing views of the way snow swept prairie rises like a sigh to say yes to where it meets up with the shocking blue of February sky.
  • Other than that, look down – especially if you’re walking west or north or near an open field.  Even the slightest breeze can pass for the edge of a razor.
  • Regarding commerce, get over your aversion to Walmart – it’s the only place to get anything other than food without driving for an hour.
  • This may be more important.  In addition to conventional social contracts like, “We all agree to stop at Stop signs,” there are unspoken but unflinchingly observed agreements about things like residential responsibility for moving snow from neighborhood walkways by 7 a.m.  By contrast, because almost no one walks (it must seem completely cracked to walk in this weather!), there’s only the weakest observance of yielding to pedestrians.
  • At the pharmacy, in the grocery check out, in the coffee shop on Main Street and at the counter in the US Post Office, some words and gestures in public exchange have a slightly but significantly local meaning.

No doubt, there is much more to learn.

Here in Wisconsin I’m seeing what I saw so often on the EX:Change trip – how easy it is to think you know what people mean and how things work, when you don’t.  So often there are small, but important regional and local differences in the way the world makes sense.  It is surprisingly easy for misinterpretation and misattribution to happen on all sides.

Knowing about this challenge to communication comes from messing up.  It’s safe to say that I’ve offended plenty of people without knowing it.  Even with the pretty serious discomfort it cost each time, I’m grateful for every opportunity I’ve had to actually get that such an offense has happened.  To find out that the meaning I’ve made of a situation has been insultingly – even dangerously – at odds with the meaning made by someone else.

Just a few weeks ago, my friend Tim from high school, commented on this blog.  Tim and I have very different takes on a poster published by Sarah Palin.  That may not change, but it would be a big mistake for either of us to think we’ve fully understood the other’s reasoning without taking the conversation further than each of our initial assumptions.  Truth is, we all make exactly that mistake many times in a day.  We stop short and miss the person in front of us.  In our small conversation here, I’m not sure if Tim and I reached any agreement, but we did keep talking.  His comments went to description of the economic context of his worldview – the realities he is deals with daily as a sheep rancher.  Even thought I only have the slightest feel for the circumstances Tim faces, I would never have known anything if we hadn’t hung with it.

Years ago, my friend Judy stopped talking with me for a period of time.  She said she was angry and hurt.  My friendship with Judy was important to me, so I kept checking in.  A week or so later, we were at a playground with our kids.  She walked up to me near where our daughters were helping each other try new ways of swinging from the high bars.  “It just hurts my feelings when you don’t ask about my life,” Judy said.  “I feel like I’m not interesting to you.”  That’s when we realized the small but significant difference in the way we each made sense of signs of friendship.  I was carrying around a rule I had probably picked up in the rural South – Especially with your friends, don’t ask too many questions.  That’s prying and prying is rude.  They will trust you more without the questions and tell you what they want you to know. Judy was raised Latina in urban LA.  Her rule was – People care for each other by asking lots of questions to get specifics on how each others’ lives are going.  That’s the only way we can know how to take care of each other.

With Judy and again with Tim and LOTS of times in between, leaving things at misunderstanding would have meant losing connection.  Listening beyond misunderstanding required opening to consider how the world looks from another perspective.  It’s way more complicated than any cliché though.  With Tim, with Judy and with the people of rural Wisconsin, it takes a willingness to be uncomfortable – to be aware that I am being perceived as clumsy and offensive.  It takes patience with myself and everyone else.  We’re all way more used to settling – to turning away from difference and hanging out only with people who live with the same unspoken rules we do.

Because of the EX:Change trip in 2009, I’ve been unusually fortunate to learn a lot about listening through discomfort.   The remarkable consistencies and important distinctions of the 100 American voices of the EX:Change remain powerful teachers.  And I’m finding it is a practice that doesn’t stop.

Here in the gentle dips and rises of glacial leftovers that define the landscape of Wisconsin, I can hear and see the misses more often.  There is a distinction between the familiar agreement and disagreement among locals and the tension that snaps into place with the unfamiliar – specifically when urban outsiders like me show up conducting ourselves in ways that are dead give-aways that we aren’t yet literate in the ways of showing respect and courtesy in this place and its time.

There’s a lot to consider here – about privilege, about willingness to stay in the conversation.

On with the EX:Change.


  1. As a newbie to Washington D.C. I was dismayed to learn that people don’t know how to shovel, or perhaps don’t care. I think it’s the former. They are used to everything melting off in a day. The last two days it has not. To add to your “what I’ve learned about shoveling list”, it’s a stitch in time saves nine scenario. You need to take on immediately, or you’ll work twice as hard on ice. We have a corner urban property with lots of traffic to the bus stop. Best idea is to get out there in the snow (if it’s light enough.)

  2. Mary–

    I’m so thankful no cars stop for you, either. It is earth-shattering when I reach the crosswalk and someone stops to let me cross! Glad it’s like that for you, too. I was starting to take it personally.

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